Director: Taylor Sheridan Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene Running Time: 111 minutes
It would maybe be unfair to say that Wind River, the directorial debut of Sicario and Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan, has bad intentions. A title card shown in the film’s final moments, which damningly reveals that the FBI does not keep statistics on missing Native American women, whose numbers remain unknown, aims to highlight the dismissive treatment of Native Americans by the US government. Which is probably evidence that the intentions here are good, but we all know where paths paved with good intentions tend to lead. Wind River occasionally taps into the same weary, dying heart of America melancholy that made Hell or High Water one of last year’s best films, but it’s difficult not to see its story as using the death of a young Native American woman to explore the pain and emotional redemption of Jeremy Renner, rather than the victims the film positions itself as having sympathy for. What this film wants to take a look at is certainly worth seeing it, but this is a story about a murdered Native American woman that looks down on women and sidelines Native Americans.
First shown dutifully hunting on a reservation in Wyoming, Renner plays Cory Lambert, an agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a committed father of a family that has been torn apart. Lambert is the kind of strong, mostly silent that type male filmmakers are so often drawn to, the kind whose face might literally crack if it smiled, worn down by the weight of the dead woman in his tragic backstory. Out in the snow, Lambert discovers the remains of Natalie Hanson, a young woman from the reservation. Elizabeth Olsen makes her way to the mountains to investigate on behalf of the FBI, but she needn’t have bothered, Lambert is on the case, examining tracks the way only a movie character who has somberly danced with wolves can. Renner, and Graham Greene playing local law enforcement, consistently condescend to Agent Olsen, but she’s set up for a fall by a script that doesn’t respect her character (she doesn’t even bring a jacket to snow-covered Wyoming) and a camera that briefly but typically leers at her. We know next to nothing about Jade Banner; like what her home life is like or why she joined the FBI. But we do know what kind of underwear she wears.
Finding out what happened to Natalie, something that Cory Lambert is much better at than the trained professional, is the leading man’s attempt to find some peace with a similar tragedy in his past. Gil Bermingham, playing the girl’s father, wants the same thing that Renner’s character wants, but is happy to stand aside and leave it to the Movie Star to get it done. His grief and the mother’s grief, exist to provide flavour to a relatively straightforward murder mystery rather than as something for the film to explore itself. Even for those who don’t find this sidelining problematic, that final title card is poor storytelling, as it does not cap off the story the film actually told, which is about Cory Lambert, not Natalie Morris or the parents left behind by her cruel murder. Bermingham is fantastic with the little he’s actually given, sagging like a truly broken man. For he and his wife, their culture is fading, their people an economic and social afterthought and their future has been violently taken away from them. Where can they go from here? Does the revenge the white leads get on their behalf even mean anything? That’s perhaps a hard question to answer, so Wind River provides poorly staged shoot outs instead.
Understandably, Taylor Sheridan adopts a similar visual style to the directors he has worked with in the past, with plenty of appropriately cold wide shots of the mountain snow. The action though, lacks coherence, when so many of the actors are dressed the same and are against the same backdrop it all blurs together. He does show skill behind the camera in the film’s best sequence, revealing Morris and her boyfriend (a warm and welcome interjection by Jon Bernthal) enjoying a brief bliss before the gruesome and disorienting interruption by their killers. The villains, like too much of the film, are one-note. Easy for the protagonists to find and take out, easy for the audience to hate, over the top and empty. There is plenty of skill in Wind River. It’s well shot and it’s without question well acted. Certainly the film can evoke sadness. But this is the sadness one might feel watching a funeral procession pass them, responsive rather than reflexive and the film does not realise that is has that perspective problem. This isn’t Wind River‘s funeral. This isn’t Jeremy Renner’s tragedy. Some might argue that this film does not get made with Gil Bermingham on the poster instead of two Avengers, but when the priorities are this jumbled and the wrong people in the story are being alternatively patronised and back-patted, really, why bother?(2 / 5)